by James T. Gibson
All people need folic acid. Our bodies use folate to build and repair DNA, the genetic material within every body cell. Among its other jobs, folate helps form red blood cells and prevent anemia.
But folic acid is especially important for women who are able to get pregnant. When a woman has enough folic acid in her body before and during pregnancy, it can prevent major birth defects.
Getting the recommended amount of folic acid before and during pregnancy reduces the incidence of neural tube disorders by as much as 70%, according to the CDC. Research has also found that, when taken before and during pregnancy, folic acid might protect against other birth defects, including cleft lip and palate. Our recommendation: Eat foods high in folate and taking folic acid supplements orally even if you aren't planning for a baby right now.
Folic acid reduces the risk of pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, a serious condition known as preeclampsia. In a Canadian study, folic acid-containing supplements were found to reduce the risk by 63%. Based on preliminary data, applying folic acid topically may improve gingivitis in pregnant women.
A study found that women who took folic acid for at least a year before getting pregnant cut their chances of delivering early by 50 percent or more.
A recent study at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo reported that taking folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy was linked to a decreased risk of a having a child with a severe language delay at age three. "Maternal use of supplements containing folic acid within the period from four weeks before, to eight weeks after conception was associated with a substantially reduced risk of severe language delay in children at age 3 years," said the study's lead author Christine Roth.
United State's cereal and breads contain supplemental folic acid, unlike those in Norway, so we might not observe as much difference.
While traditionally recommended for pregnant women, scientists now believe a folate-rich diet may protect men against producing abnormal sperm and children with genetic abnormalities. Men who consumed between 722 and 1,150 micrograms had a 20-30 per cent reduction in abnormal sperm.
While recent studies show no link between folic acid pills (the manmade form) and a decreased risk of heart attack. Folate is found in green vegetables and in grain products that have been fortified with folic acid. These food appear to promote heart health -- but most likely due to other nutrients, such as cholesterol-lowering fiber. Our recommendation? Snag a bowl of chili (beans contain naturally occurring folate) and eat your spinach (leafy greens are another great source of folate).
Some study suggests that folic acid supplementation might decrease blood pressure. An extra helping of folate rich foods each day might be all it takes to get yours under control.
Study results are mixed for the use of folate in stroke patients. However, experts believe that decreased blood pressure could help prevent strokes.
Another of the claims regarding the benefits of folic acid is that it may have a role in regulating mood, especially when taken with other B vitamins. It reduces homocysteine levels, which are found in greater amount in depressed people. Limited clinical research suggests that folic acid is not effective as a replacement for conventional antidepressant therapy.
Recent research suggests that folate could help older adults retain cognititve function and prevent macular degeneration, bone mass loss, and slow hearing loss. Our recommendation: Continue eating a diet naturally high in folate: Lots of leafy green vegetables, fruits and healthy grains.
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